Perfume As a Sensuous Act of Resistance
Tanaïs finds liberation from white supremacy and Brahmanical heteropatriarchy in their memoir "In Sensorium"
In Sensorium by Tanaïs is, at once, a sensuous and gut-wrenching experience in expansive memoir that bleeds across genre and time. Using perfume as a framework, Tanaïs builds the work slowly, moving from the base to the heart to the head notes, recounting alienation and life on the margins as a Brown Muslim growing up in pre- and post- 9/11 America, tracing similar erasure of their ancestors at the hands of colonizers and fascists borne out of the caste system, the genocidal birth of their homeland Bangladesh, the blood-stained lineage of its people—Bengali Muslims, women and femmes—alongside the racism and capitalist greed behind the art and commodification of perfumery.
An exposé of the orientalist gaze, a battle against the eons of patriarchal notions that have oppressed women and femmes and created molds for sexual and gender identities, In Sensorium emerges as “an act of sensuous resistance”—much like a perfume—confronting what Tanaïs terms patramyths, “foundational lies and mythologies recorded in history to protect the powerful.” Trauma, pain, shame—there’s space held for it all, carved meticulously for the ones who have been denied visibility throughout history, encapsulated in exquisite writing, driven toward generational healing.
Tanaïs is a Brooklyn-based Bangladeshi American Muslim femme, a writer, an artist, a perfumer, founder of TANAÏS, the beauty and fragrance company. Above all, they are proof of the magnificence of manifesting your authentic self, beyond the noise and corruption of the dominant culture.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Tanaïs and I spoke over Zoom about our Muslim, non-Indian South Asian identity and reality, decolonization and liberation, and perfume as language, freedom, and much more.
Bareerah Ghani: You speak of perfume as a sensuous act of resistance. Given that you’ve used perfume as a structure, the memoir too is a force of opposition against what you term patramyths. While the memoir and the perfume seem inextricable from one another, there is a liminal space. You’ve spoken about this before, this idea of erasure happening even as you speak of erasure. But perfume, the way you envision it as a language in itself, transcends patramyths. Did the use of perfume as a lens allow you to bridge that liminal space to a certain extent?
Tanaïs: For me, perfume is a way of understanding how the patramyths of purity, male and white supremacy and Brahmanical patriarchy have been established, and I wanted to use this kind of shape of a book to explore how the patramyths around scent have allowed the powerful to wield their domination over others. This shape kind of emerged and there’s an act of transcendence laced into that process, but I also think that, like the book, it’s emerging out of the patramyths too. It’s hard not to be the very thing that we’re trying to throw away.
Becoming a part of a record is part of why I seek writing as my medium. A book is impermanent in many ways, but we write to create a body that lasts beyond our time. There’s comfort in knowing that a perfume is ephemeral. It’s an experience that’s in the moment, on the body, then it disappears. There’s something to that that felt like the perfect metaphor for borderlessness, for becoming someone who makes an impression, and then is not recorded. A perfume can never fully be expressed through language too, so that’s another aspect of being chosen by perfume and choosing perfume that tries to tell the narrative, the history, eschewing the patramyths because it’s not bound by language in the same way.
BG: You’ve spoken about the intersection of your creative practices of perfumery and writing in the context of rejecting Western rules and respecting your instincts. Can you speak to some of the media, institutions or individuals you’ve relied on in your journey to decolonize yourself, exact your agency and identity in white-centered spaces?
T: I really try to avoid white centered spaces as much as possible. Even among Muslim diaspora, we’re reckoning with casteism, colorism, and history, so I really tried to be aware of the work that’s happening. The people whose work influenced this book like Poulomi Saha (Empire of Touch), Julietta Singh (No Archive Will Restore You)—they’re working to complicate the notion of an archive and what representation is because it really fails to hold the nuance of our lives. The act of us finding each other as Muslim diaspora, writing narratives that have that nuanceI really seek to experience that. Laila Lalami, Randa Jarrar, these writers who are giving us this breath of Muslimah writing that’s flexing the powers of actually writing, not just about our identity. I find great inspiration in that.
Responding to white-centered spaces is exhausting because they don’t necessarily listen to us, they don’t see us, they don’t accept our work as saying something universal. But I think our faith, our cultural milieu gives us a very deep insight into what’s universal because there’s so many people who are brought together under it. That’s something I’ve come to find as a gift. That’s not easy in America. They try to make us feel ashamed about that. And it’s not just the bigoted white person. It’s liberals, upper caste and Indian people. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have a certain role in their mind, so you have to really assert your feminist femme power of your mind. You have to reject what whiteness imagines you as, keep clear and tell our story in a way that feels rife with the complexity of human experience.
BG: In your author’s note, you say: “I make perfume to encapsulate the notes of desh, homeland that has never been my home.” I’ve essentially belonged to two places and have long grappled with this idea of belonging and home. In your memoir, you mention visiting Bangladesh in your teens and not liking it there. What is home to you? How do you contend with this idea of a homeland where at least at some point, you didn’t feel at home?
T: To me, home is where my beloveds are. My parents kept moving from state to state, I don’t necessarily feel connected to the home I grew up in. My parents live in Florida now and part of this new home is just not only being with my beloveds but going to the ocean. There was this moment where we went to the beach in Florida and I was with my mother and father. I was finishing the book. It was the full moon rising, this gorgeous ruby red orb. And then my mom was like, let’s just do our namaz here. My parents pull out their beach chairs, my mom covers, they start doing their namaz-e-maghrib. It’s sunset and we’re all praying on the beach, and I was just like, this is exactly how I want to feel connected to the earth, to my family, my beliefs, to the universe. This is home. I don’t live here but this is where I feel at home. Sometimes you have to escape the bounds of an actual physical sense of home.
Going to desh as a younger person, struggling to find my way in Bangladesh, of course it’s going to be a mix of different things. I’m pretty tall there. So I’m moving around and feeling like people are perceiving me as Indian and I’m like, no, I’m Bengali. There’s this idea of, well you’re not from here, so are you home? But don’t we feel that way here? So I think you have to find it in these moments that don’t necessarily belong to a nation, or even a physical place that’s bound by anything. You can literally find your home anywhere, find your connection to the divine anywhere and that’s deeply laced into this book —seeking and yearning for the divine. That’s my true home.
Finding the place where the binaries dissolve, where my gender is not a limitation, but abundance—that to me is also a powerful site of feeling at home in our body. This book came out of a desire to establish the reason I matter. Not appearing on certain discourses around writing, not being perceived makes me feel like I had to write this, create a home for myself as book, as a person who has a lineage that matters. Even being a Pakistani person and a Bangladeshi person, having a warm dialogue about literature, it doesn’t happen as often as it should. It’s happening for us now but for many years in human history that’s been beyond our grasp, and this is seeking to find a home for us. We have to write our home into being.
BG: Speaking of Pakistani and Bangladeshi history, in the memoir, you talk about being hesitant to close camaraderie with Pakistanis because of the 1971 Liberation War and the lineage of its traumas. How do you reckon with ancestral trauma and contend with the ensuing emotions as you interact with those whose ancestors have possibly inflicted said trauma?
T: Queerness, femmehood and connection do not belong to the patramyth of war. My Pakistani friends who are my kindred would’ve been my kindred in any lifetime, we’re not bound by the idea of being Pakistani and Bangladeshi.
When I meet Pakistani people who are ignorant of that history, it does bring up a discomfort and challenge. We cannot change what our ancestors did, what men did in the name of nation, what women and femmes have suffered at the hands of those men, and God knows the patriarchy is affecting women and femmes in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, in the diaspora, so it’s like we’re connected through the experience of our lives. It’s painful to always be like, I hate these people. I don’t want to live like that, especially not with other South Asians. And part of this book is a reckoning, and I hope it reaches my readers who are Pakistani and Indian and Dalit and Brahmin and Bangladeshi and Muslim—all these different identities that are very divisive. I want to create these liminal spaces of connection. They’re healing for us, we really deserve that.
BG: I love that! In the memoir though you talk about being Muslim and non-Indian South Asian and this idea of the term South Asian being monolithic and problematic. Can you speak to that a little more?
T: It’s interesting to me when I hear the word South Asian wielded and it’s a discussion or gathering of Indian people. I think the idea of the word is to create a sense of inclusivity, but the people who have the space, the power, the connections happen to be Indian and often, Indian upper caste people. So then the term sort of leaves us feeling like we’re not included. Including people means really diversifying and creating a space in which you’re representing the broader community and too often that’s not happening because we’re not even in the room!
Being in the beauty and fragrance business, I’ve noticed the new South Asian brands with models who are Pakistani or Bangladeshi, Tamil or Sri Lankan, but the people who can build a brand and create something are those who have money and oftentimes it’s Indian people. It’s hard to get the work out there if you’re coming from a Muslim or Dalit, or non-majority background, so I think the limitation of any identity that’s trying to encapsulate a large group of people is that you are creating dominant culture.
Even the term South Asian is sort of like saying all the Brown people of the subcontinent without saying the subcontinent. These are arbitrary terms to delineate people under some sort of dominant idea of how we’re all to be collected, understood and imagined. I want to have the freedom to reject that even though I very much belong to that, at the same time. It’s not as simple as: we’re all South Asian, it’s all good here. Actually, seeing a “Tinted” Barbie being celebrated as progress is very triggering for me. I don’t feel seen or witnessed or represented in this. To me, it’s an implication that the default setting is white. And white is not my fucking default.
BG: In one place, you also note: “…the pain of my brownness is not just that I am invisible to white people; it is that my people—Muslims—are considered to be difficult, dangerous, dissenting, by our own South Asian kin?” How do you think Muslim writers and artists can change this narrative?
T: I think we need to seek refuge in the writers who are pushing the narrative beyond the patramyth, the limits of the imagination of Muslim femme identity. They’re the ones I gravitate towards not only as writers, but as people. Being irreverent and fighting the system is so deeply a Muslim femme experience and that we’re not seen as speaking to a universal truth is maddening!
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt truly witnessed for my mind in that way of white reward and institutional support. But I have felt that through speaking to my readers who feel so moved and witnessed, and that’s where I return to—that private experience of reading and getting feedback because you realize you’re not just shouting in the dark. You’re being witnessed by people, but it’s not people who will bestow upon you money, fame or power. To write free is something I learned to do with this book. Because I was like fuck the establishment way of giving me a makeover to belong to the American public. I don’t want that.
BG: You talk about writing in the language of power and feeling powerless yourself. Language polices, holds one captive to the dominant culture, but perfume frees. You say you find comfort in using perfumed language, resorting to the olfactory, sensory as an avenue to feel more embodied. Could you speak to that more in connection to decolonization and liberation?
T: Perfumed language is very florid, full of images that are relational. It’s hard to describe, like a perfume. Seeking that language is a complex and more nuanced process than seeking plain language when you write. I found it liberating because it forces me to hold language in a way that’s uncomfortable but very true to the ways I’ve been trying to find myself in this country that I grew up in. It’s such a profound way of wielding language that it doesn’t feel like the language I read growing up. It was very liberating to reject that.
I feel that ideas of how language, writing and craft are don’t work for us because we’re not writing with the same experience and embodiment. English became our medium of understanding because of colonization. How do we hold that gift of boundarylessness and colonization in the same sentence? I really tried to decolonize my mind. For me, one of the things of not centering whiteness is choosing to do something that might not have a precedent or a form and being free to create that form. Because if we always center narratives of whiteness, will we ever truly be free?
BG: In several places, you bring up shame associated with the body, self identity, and even with writing about it all. How do you hold space for this shame and move beyond it?
T: Writing about shame in the context of In Sensorium was really about holding space for survivors and myself as a survivor. I started writing this book in the middle, with the chapter called Mala, the note of curry clinging to my body, being a survivor. I wrote about the women, femmes and queer people in Bangladesh who were harmed by men from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh in the name of nation, who were survivors of rape. That’s the heart notes in this book. I started there, I started with shame. I stared at it, held it.
So shame becomes a way that we go to the core of the story. And when we go to that place we realize that there’s so much more to our experience than shame. We’re moving beyond language, beyond nation and shame exists in that space. But so does our healing, our future, our possibility. Shame is something you have to hold simultaneously to the process of letting it go. Perfume is like that too—it exists and is disappearing, at the same time.
BG: This idea of perfume as freedom is an important throughline of the memoir. And in building In Sensorium like a perfume, the memoir too is a vehicle for liberation—a way to free yourself from the anger over ancestral and personal erasure by the dominant culture, a way to be free to write yourself the fiction you want to write. You’ve spoken about this in the context of your second novel being rejected partially because of the dominant cultural notion of, “nobody cares/will care about these people.” Now that In Sensorium is out, how do you feel about what lies ahead for you and other people of color in terms of writing and publishing?
T: What’s interesting about speaking with you is that I feel completely witnessed and understood and it’s very profound to feel that. If I sit with it, it’s like oh my gosh, this is why I wrote the book. To reach someone who’s from Karachi, from a writing background, but also trying to find their way through the dominant culture as a Muslim femme and not fall into tropes that are harmful to us as they’re doing that. But going back to the institutional support and being written about, I haven’t really experienced that in dominant culture media. This work doesn’t reach those people but powerfully reaches my people and I’ve had to sit with that. This is definitely the last part of my decolonization process—not giving a damn about this. It feels like an erasure—the way it’s not appraised, critiqued, reviewed, or shared in the dominant culture. But wasn’t that the point of this book?